The 20th century, a time of cataclysmic war and upheaval, saw many nations’ heads of state come to catastrophe. Assassinations, coups, and scandals were seen all too often–as well as greatness under pressure. But there is one story that really does take up a category all its own: the disappearance of a prime minister. That’s what happened in Australia in 1967, when Prime Minister Harold Holt vanished during a visit to a beach near Melbourne and impromptu swim. He was presumed drowned, and declared dead, but his body was never found.
Holt had become prime minister only two years earlier, winning by a landslide as a progressive Liberal. “He was a breath of fresh air,” John Warhurst, emeritus professor of politics at the Australian National University, told CNN. Holt did experience several controversies during his term, some stirred up by his support of the U.S. in the Vietnam War.
On the day in question, December 17th, Holt decided to head to Cheviot Beach, close to a holiday house he owned on the Victorian coast. An around-the-world sailor was expected to pass Port Phillip Bay and Holt and a small group of friends wanted to catch sight of him. Once on the beach, the prime minister, 59, an enthusiastic diver and spear-fisherman, insisted on a swim in rough seas before lunch, saying, “I know this beach like the back of my hand.” He plunged into the surf and was never seen again.
Since that time, various theories have emerged, ranging from accidental drowning due to rip-tide currents to suicide to CIA assassination to Holt’s swimming out to a submarine that took him to China, a country he was allegedly spying for.
The Defector, written and directed by Australian filmmaker Scott Mannion and released on the Steam platform, is the first feature to revolve around Holt’s disappearance. In developing the film, the director was inspired by films like The Conversation, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and Day of the Jackal. “I love Cold War history,” says Mannion. “It was the last great battle of world ideologies; two superpowers, on the brink of war for decades — with all the absurdity that comes with it. That pressure cooker makes for brilliant drama. Today we’re wrapped in a mess of globalization, technology, Twitter outrage; back then we had defined borders.” On Holt’s vanishing, he says, “It’s endlessly complex, and extremely fascinating, and I was interested in subverting the conspiracy theory zeitgeist.”
While Mannion does not want the conclusion the film reaches to be revealed, reportedly The Defector has already been banned in China.
The results of a coroner’s inquiry in 2005 suggest far less drama than the plot of Mannion’s film. Victoria’s state coroner ruled that Holt drowned in heavy surf, his body swept out to sea or devoured by sharks. “Mr Holt took an unnecessary risk and drowned in rough water off Cheviot Beach,” the coroner said. “Perhaps, in hindsight, there should have been an inquiry as it may have avoided the development of some of the unsubstantiated rumors and unusual theories.”
However, those who suspect a darker truth say that Holt was under visible strain in the weeks leading up to his disappearance. The Guardian reports: “Others believed the CIA killed Holt because they thought he was about to take Australia out of Vietnam, given the strong opposition to the war by many Australians.”
More than a decade after Holt’s death, British novelist Anthony Grey published a book titled The Prime Minister Was a Spy. The premise of the novel was that Holt was a spy for the Chinese government since the early 1930s, a “sleeper agent.” In Grey’s novel, Holt discovered that the Australian intelligence services had learned his secret and he was about to be questioned. That day he swam out and was picked up by a Chinese submarine.
When asked what she thought of such a theory, Holt’s widow, Zara Holt, scoffed, saying, “Harry? Chinese submarine? He didn’t even like Chinese cooking.”
Late last year, grandson Robert Holt also discouraged any wild theories about the prime minister’s vanishing. “Every year there are people who drown in Australian waters and we never find the body,” Robert told reporters, speaking on the beach where his grandfather was last seen. “If you look at the beach here and how shallow it is, the idea that a submarine could have got in here is absolute madness.”